American Fossils: Exhibiting Nature and Nation in New York’s Great Dinosaur Hall

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:50 PM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Alison Laurence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The habitat dioramas in New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) are valuable archives of the social and political milieu in which they were created, as Donna Haraway and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt have demonstrated. The scientists and technicians who collaborated on these displays in the early decades of the twentieth century were aiming to engineer nature untrammeled, but instead they mapped their own ideas about gender, race, and geopolitics onto their taxidermic tableaus. This paper builds on that premise, while shifting the inquiry from extant to extinct animal exhibits.

The dinosaurs that drew visitors to the AMNH lived and died long before the construction of human categories like gender, race, or nation; and yet, their remains were regularly gendered, inserted into racial discourse, and claimed as national heritage by the press and the public. Were visitors projecting their own beliefs onto these fossils or reacting to what they encountered in the museum? Was the “Brontosaur,” the star specimen of the Great Dinosaur Hall (which opened in 1927), marked by the same “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” that would characterize Carl Akeley’s iconic gorilla group (then being prepared for the Hall of African Mammals)? To approach an answer, I follow the intellectual and physical labor that produced these contemporaneous exhibits. I emphasize personnel overlap between extinct and extant animal exhibition, including Henry Fairfield Osborn, vertebrate paleontologist, eugenicist, and president of the AMNH during these years, and artisans like Louis Paul Jonas, who worked under Akeley but became most well known as the sculptor of the fiberglass Sinclair dinosaurs featured at the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair. Untangling the behind-the-scenes intersections between extinct and extant animal displays at the AMNH reveals how scientific specimens, including those most removed from the modern world, can be transformed into social and political entities.